“Nothing in this world that’s worth having comes easy”
My local cycling group, Team WR, had decided to set ourselves yet another ridiculous challenge. Cycle from our hometown of Biggleswade to Paris. That’s 240 miles non stop (other than the small matter of an English Channel crossing – we decided pedalos were a step too far!).
Team WR seem to have an unhealthy obsession with gradually pushing ourselves to the point of destruction. Last year a 160 mile ride circumnavigating Bedfordshire, this year, Paris, next year Lord knows what pain and suffering awaits!
Whilst I wasn’t there at the planning session for this ride, I always imagine our fearless leaders Duncan and Keith as two kids trying to outdo each other on the playground:
“Sooo, what we planning this year?”
“Fancy London to Brighton?”
“You serious!? Pathetic! How ’bout London to Paris?”
“That’s easy, barely worth getting up for. How about Biggleswade to Paris?”
“Umm, I suppose it’s a challenge, but if we’re going to do it, we may as well go straight there”
“Yeah, goes without saying we’ll do it non stop. No point wasting time on the route”.
So there it was. Biggleswade To Paris – Non Stop.
The group was 9 riders with 1 support vehicle:
Duncan – chief planning officer, winner of every 30mph sprint, the guy who got me out cycling in the first place, and a great neighbour.
Keith – fearless Team WR leader and king of the 20 RPM hill climb.
Richard – a man who likes to bring all his worldly possessions on a bike ride, and sporting a brand new beard.
Neil – more often seen on muddy tracks, owner of every Anker device in the world and my roomie!
Ian – the man of 100 bright socks and 100 more bikes
Mark – also known as ‘tall Mark’, he’s brave enough to take on this challenge with only a couple of month’s notice
Paul – owner of the World’s biggest Cervelo, and known only as Paul despite being taller than Mark
Andrew – the man who rides an aluminium bike and is still strong enough to beat us all!
Mouse – man in a van and local hero! The guy who makes adventures like this possible by selflessly giving his time to support us.
So there it was. A plan, a team, we even had a kit. Time to hit the road!
0930 – Pre Ride Coffee and Send Off
We met in Biggleswade town square with an hour to go until leaving. It was amazing the amount of people who’d turned out to say goodbye, I felt like I’d accidentally signed up for a tour of duty in the Atlantic! Dogs, kids, mothers, brothers, it really was quite a send off. Signs had been made, I even spotted a couple of good luck T-shirts. Biggleswade doesn’t get this kind of excitement too often!
Most bikes were sleek carbon, hand built and ready to churn through the miles. Richard, however, seemed to have missed the memo about a support vehicle and opted to load his bike with all manner of bags, maps and food. If only we’d known then the problems we were going to face we would have seem him as a visionary not a hoarder!
Time ticked by pretty quick. good job too as it wasn’t the warmest morning. Coffee flowed, cakes were consumed, and talk turned to the normal discussion between riders; bikes, socks, kit, the usual. The standard lifting of each other’s bikes to check the weight happened more than once, it seemed we were doing anything to take our minds off the enormity of the task ahead. Before we knew it the WAGs were shepherding us into the most photogenic position for one final group shot before the off. They quickly gave up on photogenic, realising they weren’t capable of a Saturday morning miracle and opted instead for lots of shouting and hoping for the best. A small child was sent in with a homemade sign to make up the numbers and hopefully divert from the wealth of Lycra on show.
1030 – Time To Leave
As we rolled out of Biggleswade everything felt kind of normal. Out on my bike with guys I’d ridden with loads of times before, leaving the town the same way we always did, crowd shouting our name and videoing our every move… Ok, not quite the same, but it was a surreal experience. To start off a ride this long on roads you know so well makes it feel like a standard ride out and back Sunday route. Anything to trick the mind had to be good!
The first stage of the ride was about 40km to Datchworth. As we headed through neighbouring villages a couple of friends joined us on a motorbike, leaning off the back taking photos. It was easy to dream of being in the pro peloton! This was our big moment! We had been in the papers, we were wearing the same kit, we’d properly made it! We even had support riders joining us from various rides we’d been on in the past. There were mountain bikers, road bikers, commuters, it was great of people to give up some of their Saturday morning to lead us out.
Chat amongst the group was all really positive. It’s almost hard to visualise such a big challenge early on, you break it down into stages. Right now was just about getting to stop off one with the van. The pace was easy, the sun was coming out, and we were all feeling good. Riding with a big group can be difficult, but we were hitting a nice rhythm and all looking out for each other, pointing out even the most minor of potholes, and keeping each other aware of the traffic trying to overtake.
“Stop, STOP! Stop, you F**cking idiot!”
It almost all came crashing down around us and we were only 30km in. For some reason a taxi had decided the best place to overtake was on a narrow road leading into a blind bend. He quickly realised something else was coming and left no where else to go but right into the middle of our group. Thankfully we were all still alert, and somehow didn’t end up joining through the back window. Lucky really as the daft sod probably would have charged us a fare for the pleasure!
1215 – Stop off in Datchworth
With 40km done we made our first stop off on the village green in Datchworth. The van was waiting for us as planned and we all took a couple of minutes to stretch out and refuel. We hadn’t been going long but we were all clear we wanted to take it easy early on. This ride was not about speed it was about getting there. After a quick stop off we climbed out of Datchworth and then gained some speed as we headed down towards London. The miles seemed to melt away in front of us as we skirted on the edges of Welwyn Garden City, Hertford and Potters Bar and flew towards Barnet. Very quickly our route changed from country lanes into the built up suburbs of North London.
We pulled over quickly to tech up. Duncan and Keith had brought some radios with the aim of keeping us together through London. With one on the front and one on the back they did an amazing job of keeping the group as one through the traffic lights, and general trials of group riding in the capital.
Our first test was a long downhill stretch out of Barnet. This should have been great fun but, being London, it was peppered with speed humps turning the road from a nice sweeping chance to relax into a wrist snapping roller coaster. The roads were getting rougher, and the cars less patient. City riding is complicated at the best of times, but with a big group like this it was really hard. By yourself it’s easy to dart in and out between cars and buses, knowing the position to take that will keep you safe, but when you’ve got others around your decisions become one for the group not just yourself.
I proved this point pretty quickly, by shooting down a hill and misreading Keith’s actions in front of me. I jumped on the brakes quickly, disks squealing, and somehow managed to avoid the back of him. The worst injury was to my tyre, which would spend the rest of the ride to Paris with one very squared off section which I had left behind on the streets of Finchley.
The rest of the ride towards the centre of London was largely uneventful which was about the best we could have hoped for. The hardest part was keeping together through traffic lights, and there were numerous stops as we regularly had to reunite the group. At one of these a local estate agent popped out to have a chat with Keith. He’d seen ‘Biggleswade’ on the back of our jerseys, and quickly looked it up on the computer. He couldn’t believe how far we’d ridden, and when Keith told him where we were planning to end up I couldn’t tell if he was shocked or just confused! London to Paris was a fairly well worn path, but Biggleswade to London to Paris!? We were trailblazers!
1430 – Lunch Stop ‘Look Mum No Hands’
After the chaos around getting into London I have to say I was really looking forward to a lunch break. The stopping and starting had taken a toll on my legs, and the traffic avoidance meant full concentration at all times. After 4 hours of riding the thought of a sit down and my first savoury food of the day was pretty appealing.
As we parked up the bikes outside ‘Look Mum No Hands’ on Old Street I did the first thing any self respecting person of my generation does and pulled out my phone to reconnect with the world. What was awaiting me though took us all by surprise.
“Van broke, no joke, 2hrs till AA arrive”
Mouse had posted in our B2P WhatsApp group. The support vehicle had given in before we had! News spread fast, and the short term implications were clear. No topping up of our pockets with our favourite energy snacks, no quick change of socks and (Lord have mercy) no chance to charge our electronic devices over lunch. This was truly a setback of massive proportions. Only a few had their passports with them, the rest were on the van. Even if we did, we were booked as one group, we had to be on the van to get that ferry. Even if we could negotiate our way across an international border and onto a ferry, could we really survive all the way to Paris without spare kit, drink, tools? What else could we do? Cycle the coastal route? Come straight home? Hire another van?
We decided on a better plan. Have lunch and hope for the best. Lunch was amazing, fueling up on burgers and cold drinks. This place is a cyclist’s heaven with memorabilia and gear as far as the eye can see. As the plates started to empty, it was time to head out again into the London traffic.
1530 – Lunch Stop Over, Time To Head Out Of London
With no further update on the van we decided to carry on south. We still had about another 20km of dodgy London cycling to go, though the promise was it got better south of the river.
The radios were really paying off now as we started to get into the busiest parts of London. We were heading for Tower Bridge as our cross over the Thames, but it seemed every other vehicle in the near vicinity had decided to do the same thing. Tower Bridge has the dubious honour of being ranked the second worst bridge in London to cross on a bicycle.
This then gets amplified when you are trying to get 11 riders (we still had 2 of our lead out crew with us) across at once. The lanes were narrow, with the only place to escape into being a 4ft high metal barrier at the side of the road. We pushed on over and spirits were soon lifted by a couple having their wedding photos at the side of the road who decided to give us a wave.
We had a quick stop off the other side of Tower Bridge, but with the van problems coupled alongside the stop start nature of London cycling we were starting to get a bit concerned about making the ferry which was due to leave in 6 hrs. With 100km left we needed to get going. Tony, who had joined us for the ride into London, said his goodbyes to get a tube home, so we were now down to 10 with Lee deciding he was going to stick with us until Brighton.
We made as quick a progress as possible through South London. We joined the cycle ‘superhighway’ guilty on two counts of a) not being super and b) not being a highway. It was made up mostly of small blue lanes filled with parked cars and potholes. The sun was starting to come out now, and we were all feeling a bit fresher.
And the news just got better. Keith had pulled over to take a phone call and it was Mouse. The van had sprung back into life before the AA even arrived. He was on the move again and hoping to catch us up in the next couple of hours!
We’d been split up just before the call, and the group pulling up couldn’t help put take the piss that we’d decided to pull up right by a stand of ‘Boris bikes’. Humour amongst cyclists is fairly low level, and invariably revolves around pointing out someone else having a worse bike than you. Pulling over to look like you’re making a swap onto one of London’s fine steeds opens up a whole world of easy abuse. We quickly moved on to save face.
As we headed out of London we got some great views of Clapham Common, and then headed into the less picturesque parts of Mitcham and Sutton. The roads were getting clearer, but the traffic lights still stopped us making consistent progress.
For Paul though this was the least of his worries. We’d all got used to the stop offs at traffic lights but on the very edge of London he got a little more than he’d bargained for. Imagine pulling up to the lights, white van to your right, eyes fixed firmly ahead when out of the corner of your eyes a dog the size of a small bear leans out of the window less than a foot away from you! If you look closely at the heart rate file from Paul’s journey through London, you’ll notice a spike the was completely unrelated to the cycling exertions. The way he tells the story, he’s lucky to be alive!
And then it ended. As quickly as it had begun London just sort of finishes. One second you’re surrounded by concrete, the next minute by trees. It was such a great feeling to be out of the city and into the smaller lanes that we all preferred riding on. One sense of fear was filled with another though. We had all seen the route profile, and it was really clear how tough the South Downs were going to be, especially as we were running low on supplies.
1815 – Co Op Stop off in Smallfield
It was great to get out of London and we were making decent progress again now. We decided at a stop off at the Co Op in Smallfield. This was where the van was planned to meet us originally, but in a rather unfortunate twist of events he had manage to miss us and was now ahead on his way to Brighton!
Various purchases were made to refuel and Ian was even generous enough to buy us ice creams. We were really showing our athletic prowess to the locals.
I have to admit to feeling a bit sorry for myself by this point. The sweet energy products through the day were making me feel a bit sick, and I had a tightness in my chest that felt like asthma, but would not shift. I sat down on the steps outside in the sunshine having the kind of internal debate that anyone on this length ride does at some point. We were just over 80 miles in, but had a long way to go to the coast, and the brutal climb of Ditchling Beacon was moving closer and closer to the forefront of all of our minds. I wasn’t giving up for anything, but was starting to wonder the cost. The last thing I wanted was to slow the group down, but I was far from 100%. The ice cream was helping though, not sure why the pros don’t use it as a solution more often!
We set off again, skirting past the edge of Gatwick Airport and into the ‘High Weald Area Of Natural Beauty’. It lived up to it’s name and some. After the concrete landscape of London, it was a real pleasure to be in these kind of surroundings. I do have a slight bone to pick with the name though and would like to propose a motion for a slight change. I think the ‘High Weald Area of Natural Beauty and Hills’ would be far more appropriate.
It was getting tough out here, we were starting to hit some really grinding climbs. Coming from the lowlands and false flats of Bedfordshire the consistent climbing was really taking it’s toll on our already tired legs. We kept pushing and despite the challenge spirits remained high. This was in no small part to the amazing descents that rewarded us for each climb, allowing us to shoot down at some serious speeds. Ian was the master of the aero tuck and regardless of where he’d placed on a climb your were sure to hear his freewheel rushing past you at over 60 km/h less than halfway down each one. There were leaves on the road, and some of the bends got a bit tasty, but we all had great fun pushing ourselves to the limit. I managed to drop my chain at high speed after an unfortunate incident with a pot hole but even that didn’t wipe the smile off my face.
At the top of the third big climb the call was for another stop. A pub had been sighted. Now we’re talking! Whilst it probably wouldn’t have helped matters I certainly wouldn’t have turned down a pint down right now. Thankfully there are wiser heads than mine in the group, and it was made clear we’d stopped off just to use the toilets. You can’t blame a guy for trying!
1945 – Stop off at Ian’s Sister’s house for Jaffa Cakes!
When we reached the town of Haywards Heath it was time for another little stop off. Ian’s sister lived just off the route so we decided to pull over. I assume Ian had warned her, as she didn’t seem to be as shocked as most at the sight of us in her front garden. In fact she was very welcoming. After a few of us had trudged through the house to use the toilet and top up the water she pulled a blinder by bringing out a pack of Jaffa Cakes. Needless to say they didn’t last long. Us riders use the burning of calories on a ride to justify a multitude of eating sins, and this was no exception.
2015 – Ditchling Beacon
This was it, the bit we’d all been fearing all day. Ditchling Beacon is famous for being the crippling hill towards the end of the London to Brighton ride. It’s struck fear into the hearts of many cyclists, and we were taking it on with 100 miles already in our legs. In his book ‘100 Greatest Cycling Climbs’ Simon Warren describes this as “the hill that’s forced more riders off their bikes than any other”. I’ve got to say it nearly had me too!
There’s no doubting where you’re going as you approach Ditchling. It rises ahead for many miles, and the road up the side is clear to make out. It was twilight by now, and with the sky starting to dim above us we made our way up towards the heavens. We said goodbye to each other early on. In cycling, hills are things to be suffered alone and at your own pace. There is no shame in the group breaking up on a tough climb like this, we were each in our own individual worlds of pain by now going as hard as possible.
As the road turned onto the base of the climb I got myself in a rhythm. I have pretty low gearing on my bike so it allowed me to keep a fairly high cadence. The road snakes around like an alpine pass, though it remains distinctly British with damp leaves and gravel on the roads. I was happy with my pace. I wasn’t in the elite band shooting off up the road, but I also wasn’t falling away. I was comfortably tapping out my rhythm. My heart rate had shot through the roof early, but the key was to not go so deep I would lose control completely. This was not easy, as the Beacon did well to hide it’s curves. Every time you thought the pain was over it shot another uphill at you, keeping you firmly in it’s claws. As I made my way out of the tree line, the view was astonishing. The sun was starting to drop low in the sky and cast shadows across the beautiful Sussex countryside. With 100 miles already behind me I was amazed, but I was going to make it to the top without a single stop off.
As I reached the faster riders who’d stopped off at the top the jubilation was clear. A major milestone was behind us now and it was pretty much downhill from here to the coast. We felt on top of the world for that moment, and we’d earned it. Fearless riding from everyone involved. As the rest of the group joined us we took a couple of minutes to take in the view, and then it was off again, we now had a battle on our hands to avoid the darkness.
2115 – Brighton
The journey from Ditchling Beacon to Brighton was an adrenaline fuelled rollercoaster ride. The downhill more than made up for the climbs and we made it to Brighton in no time at all. Our big challenge now was the ever hastening gloom, and our unlit dart through the Brighton streets was certainly not for the faint-hearted.
As we pulled up at the coast with the pier in sight, phone calls were made to the van. We were in Brighton, he was in Brighton, but trying to find each other was proving difficult. By now we were tired and very conscious of a ferry we needed to be ready for by 10pm. The van was no where to be seen in the first car park, so we pushed on to the second. Still nothing. More phone calls were exchanged, still no sign. It was no one’s fault, but we just could not seem to meet up. We hastily decided we needed to push on for Newhaven.
Due to the problems with the van we’d been unable to meet up all day. For most of the riders this meant no lights on the bikes as they were planning to add them late in the day to save weight. We decided on formation riding. I had a front light, and others had back lights. We’d group up with the unlit riders sheltered in the middle. This seemed like a great plan, unless you were the guy battling on the front after a long day in the saddle. As innovative as it may have seemed at the time for Cannondale to build a light into my front stem, if I ever meet that engineer I will share with him the pain it caused me.
It was only 10 miles from Brighton to Newhaven, but they seemed like the longest miles of the day. It didn’t help that as soon as we were past the city limits we saw our own van pulling up the hill in front of us. I was hoping he’d pass us by so lights could be shared out and I could shelter in the group again, but that faint prayer had just disappeared into the dusk. It was not the flattest route along the coast and it got pretty hairy. This was the main route linking two big towns, and a Saturday night made for a busy route. We were passed close by everything from boy racers to buses, counting down the minutes until we could pull over and rest.
After what seems like an age we arrived in Newhaven. There was a promise of KFC, but it quickly became clear this wasn’t going to happen. We were registered as one vehicle, so we now had to pack away all our bikes and kit away in the minibus before jumping on ourselves. We managed this in an incredibly slick manner giving how tired we were all feeling. It kind of passed us by that this was the first time we had seen the bus all day. Though he may not have realised it, Mouse had been an absolute hero persevering in the way he did. While most of us did not take the time to thank Mouse that night, I had never been so glad to see anyone in my life!
2210 – Ferry Crossing
We just made the ferry. We needed to check in at 2200 for a 2300 ferry, and whilst we were late we made it through. This was the last ferry of the night, so we were all glad to be on board and heading across the channel. When we got out on the car deck we all grabbed various bits from our bags foolishly thinking we were going to get a few hours sleep. The crossing was scheduled for four hours. I had two priorities. Eat something that wasn’t an energy gel, and sleep.
Part one of the plan worked out well. Whilst the choice of food on the ferry wasn’t desperately inspiring I made a pretty decent choice, spaghetti bolognese with a couple of rolls. Perfect, exactly what my body needed. Unfortunately not all of my colleagues made such great decisions, being lead by their hearts not their heads. I sat in the corner smiling smugly to myself as some very poor excuses for fish and chips were brought over to the table and then heavily criticised mouthful by mouthful.
With dinner out of the way, it was time to execute part two of the plan, get some sleep. This proved to be more difficult than expected.
I was tired enough that I felt I could sleep almost anywhere, but despite this I simply couldn’t! A combination of wooden floor, noisy kids and general rocking of the boat made it impossible. It’s a weird feeling lying there knowing you’re tired, and knowing you simply have to sleep ahead of another big ride the following day but your body resisting you. I had made a makeshift bed under a couple of chairs, with my head on my sleeping bag and an old cycling cap pulled down across my face to try and keep out the light. It wasn’t ideal, but the best I could manage. All the comfy chairs had been taken by those lucky enough to turn up early for the boat.
The hours slipped by far too quickly, and before we knew it we were sitting around waiting to disembark. God knows what other passengers thought of us. We looked like the rejected extras from ‘The Walking Dead’. Glazed eyes, crooked backs and general groaning was normal from this lot, but the smell must have been the final straw for most people! I’m normally really conscious of what other people think of me, but today I couldn’t care less! I’d cycled nearly 125 miles yesterday, and after less than an hour’s sleep I was about to set off to do another 100 today. Anyone who feels they could do it in more style than us is welcome to try.
We made our way back to the van and off the ferry. Having been fully passport checked on the way onto the boat it had somehow slipped our minds that the same thing may happen on the way off it. Our first experience of France was a very angry lady shouting at us in a language none of us understood and pointing towards a sign that made no sense. It took us a fair while to find our passports which had all been packed away the night before whilst a queue formed behind us.
0530 (French Time) – A Residential Street in Dieppe
After we found our way out of the port, and made a wrong turn in the darkness we decided to pull over on a random street in Dieppe. It all happened very suddenly. In the back of my head I was hoping we’d drive around for a bit and maybe I could force in another half hour or so of sleep, but this was it.
It was just starting to get light. Not quite enough to consider cycling without lights, but enough that it wasn’t pitch black any more. This was unfortunate for the residents of Avenue Charles Nicolle as they were awoken to the site of 9 men in various states of Lycra undress in the middle of their normally quiet street. We were far past the point of caring!
After half an hour or so we set off. There was a Mexican wave of yelps as arse cheeks hit saddles for the first time in six hours. The reality of the pain facing us in the day ahead was etched across the faces of everyone in the group. We had no real set starting point to this part of the ride, so we messed around for a while criss-crossing streets, mostly on the opposite side of the road to the one we should be. Thankfully the streets were quiet at this time of day, and after some basic compass based navigation the Garmins recognised our location and we headed out of Dieppe.
0630 – Avenue Verte
A few miles outside Dieppe is the cyclist’s paradise of Avenue Verte. In theory this travels right from London to Paris, but the bit we were interested in was 30 miles of disused railway track that would make up the first part of our ride.
This could not have been a better way to start our day. It consists of a track wide enough for a couple of riders, with beautiful French countryside on either side. The route is occasionally broken up with a stop sign as you cross over small village roads, but we didn’t see a vehicle the whole time we were on it. As an old railway route, it was pretty much flat. We were riding a very slight uphill, but the healthy tailwind more than made up for it.
We very quickly got up a decent pace, shooting along for large parts at over 30km/h. Everyone took their turn on the front, and the tiredness started to ease away. While we still had a long way to go, it was comforting to know that the wind was on our side, and that at the end of this route was the promise of breakfast and coffee.
We stopped off quite early on to get rid of some layers as it had warmed up quickly. I had opted for full finger gloves when I got off the bus, and was now regretting it as my hands were overheating. I decided to ride gloveless until we met up with the van again, which stopped the heat problem, but also quickly made me realise just how long my hands had been holding on to a set of bars in the last 24hrs. With no padding every bump took its toll, but my shattered brain decided this was the best option.
Avenue Verte passed by quickly and without too many problems. Andy had the first puncture of the ride, but like the pro engineer he is, he was up and running very quickly again. There was the odd shoot off into the long grass that borders the route, the group was a bit twitchy after such a small amount of sleep so mistakes were made, but thankfully reactions were still spot on.
0830 – Supermarket stop off
We’d made amazing time. Two hours to complete 30 miles with a puncture stop in the middle was an incredible pace considering the miles in our legs. We met up with the van outside a supermarket that unfortunately wasn’t due to open until 9. Richard tried some negotiation in his best Franglish, but we weren’t getting in. We topped up our water bottles, and tucked into some energy bars, but this wasn’t the breakfast we’d all been hoping for. It had clouded again, so we decided to push on before it got too cold, slightly disappointed at the lack of grub we’d been dreaming of for the past two hours.
0900 – Forges-les-Eaux
Jackpot. We cycled on for a couple more miles and came across a beautiful little town with a boulangerie right on the square. This is what we’d been looking for. Richard plied his trade with more success this time and managed to negotiate a number of baguettes with ham and cheese. I’m still not entirely clear whether this was on the menu or not, but somehow Richard’s charm worked!
Not only was there a boulangerie but opposite a small coffee shop selling the rocket fuel we all needed. Drinks were lined up, baguettes were consumed, smiles radiated through the square.
It took us about half an hour to muster up the courage to head off again. When you’ve been looking forward to something for so long it’s hard to come to terms with it finishing, but officially breakfast was over. The big upside was that we seemed to have managed to order one baguette too many. Richard certainly did not want to see his hard work go to waste so put it in his back pocket for a later time. Seeing him ride off with a baguette in his back pocket and no hint of irony brought a smile to my face. To the French old man who caught my eye on the way out I think we were toeing a very fine line between comedy and racist stereotyping!
The scenery around us now was everything I had expected from France. This was my first time cycling in this beautiful country and it didn’t disappoint. The weather had done it’s best to shroud the views in mist earlier in the day but it was just starting to brighten up now. It was lush green with hills rolling off into the distance as far as the eye could see. Every small settlement we passed was as picturesque and peaceful as you would expect. When you are used to cycling in a country as claustrophobic as England, spaces as wide open as this really capture the imagination, and every cluster of houses becomes a point of interest to look forward to. Cycling can do this to you; time seems endless, the mind wanders. When you are riding distances such as these, large passages of time can disappear and you almost stop thinking and start to enjoy everything around you. Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying, “you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle”. I have to agree; you take so much more in on the ground pushing yourself along than you do with your foot on an accelerator.
I was quickly knocked out of my hippy-like ethereal state by a close brush with the front of a late 90s Renault Clio. The French have a particularly unwelcome habit of not indicating at roundabouts, which can make the normally simple task of staying alive all the more complicated. Whilst the irony of almost being wiped out by the most French of cars hadn’t escaped me, this one was just a bit close for comfort. The caffeine was wearing off, time to refuel!
1030 – McDonalds!
We’re British. Taking that into account it would almost be rude wrong not to indulge in that most common of British travelling pastimes and stop off at a McDonalds on our adventure. For some breakfast just wasn’t enough and more food was required, for others caffeine levels were running low. It had now been 24hrs since leaving Biggleswade, and we were all running on less than two hours sleep in that time.
We joined the incredibly well kept (fat!) sparrows under a canopy in the garden and tucked into cheeseburgers and coffee whilst waiting for a small rain storm to pass overhead. This was the briefest of stop offs, but it did wonders for morale. We knew we had some big hills ahead but the food had helped, and we lined up into formation again to head off.
Despite the miles in our legs the usual gauntlets were thrown down at every climb. I was feeling particularly spirited, and was now made up of about 40% black coffee, so set about my usual task of beating Keith up hills. This is something I have tried for nearly three years now, and today felt like my day. He was tired, I was rocket fuelled.
The first big climb presented me my chance. I had rolled quickly down the previous ramp and built up good momentum. I had caught up and passed our chief downhill rider Ian, and here I was all by myself heading into the sky. I definitely carry a few more pounds that Keith, and the gravity had helped catapult me up the early slopes. My heart rate was staying pretty low and I was feeling good. I clicked down through the gears to get my legs into spinning mode and started to get a decent rhythm going. It’s amazing how much you can find within yourself to push, even at this extreme of tiredness. But it was all in vain. I could hear that familiar slow grinding whirr coming up behind me. Keith seems to have an unhealthy ability to climb at RPMs most people would struggle to stay upright on, so when he approaches it can be very stealth like, no telling signs of fast pumping legs. The second sounds I heard was even worse. He was talking. He’d brought Andrew along with him for the ride, and they were happily chatting away as they flew past me still in the big ring. It’s sickening. All that effort, and they headed by barely breaking a sweat. Sometimes you’ve just got to concede you’re being beaten by better men, and when it comes to hills these two certainly are.
1130 – Disaster Strikes
We conquered a few more bumps, and the route started to flatten out a bit. The group came back together, and we set about building up a fast pace. The quicker riders started to take over with Mark, Duncan and Ian setting the pace at the front. I have to confess to getting a bit lost out the back at this point. There are a few of us who aren’t so great at hanging on when the pace quickens on the flat, and I ended up in the second group at the back regretting our races up the hills.
Unfortunately this gave me a perfect view of what was to come next. As we headed quickly down a slight gradient, Ian had come crashing to the ground up ahead. We all rushed to help, getting the bike off the road and then tending to Ian (priorities!). I have to say he is a braver man than me. He got straight up, grunted a bit, walked off, then put his sunglasses back on. If that’s not how a man deals with a fall I don’t know what is!?
The damage looked painful, a big graze through his shorts and up his arm on the left side. They had been moving at quite a pace when he came down and he left a fair bit of skin on the tarmac. Ian seemed less worried than the rest of us though, and set about trying to work out what damage his hand built Cervelo had taken. It never fails to amaze me how tough cyclists can be, and even after this amount of riding he was clearly more worried about his bike than himself. Richard and his fully laden bike came into play, providing water and antiseptic wipes. Ian started to patch himself up now he was satisfied his bike was acceptable to ride. The next big concern were his Rapha shorts. These things don’t come cheap, but Ian reassured us all that they replace them free of charge. Phew.
Very quickly we were ready to get moving again. Ian’s resilience was amazing, and once he’d dusted off himself and his bike we decided to leave. No one wanted to give up this far into our epic challenge and Ian is made of strong stuff, but even so something like this could have derailed the whole trip. Given the miles we were doing and how tired we all were something like this happening was quite likely but it’s always a massive shock when it does. It only takes a tiny touch of handlebars at these speeds to send someone to the ground, and it’s easy to lose concentration for a split second. Thankfully there were no broken bones, and Ian was able to get up and going on his bike despite the newly formed air holes in his kit.
We carried on, a bit more carefully than before, towards Paris.
1330 – Marines
Our last stop before Paris was to be Marines. We found Mouse and the van in a little car park just off the town square.
There was a sense of nervousness amongst the group. We were nearly there, but still had a long way to go. This was our final camp before heading to the summit, and we knew we still had 30 miles to go before the Eiffel Tower. Tiredness was really setting in now, and our bodies seemed to be burning more energy than we could eat. I watched Neil demolish half a pack of flapjacks and 2 energy gels. Nothing was off limits now!
We were not looking forward to the next stretch partly because we had (wrongly) calculated there was still a big hill to come, but mostly because after our experiences in London, Paris was looming large in our minds.
The first aid kit was fished out of the van, and Ian set about trying to repair his wounds. Now the adrenaline had worn off he was starting to stiffen up and having that added to everything else we were going through must have been a real mental battle. We decided to hit the road before he became a statue.
1400 – The Outskirts of Paris
It wasn’t long before we stopped again. We were well into the suburbs of Paris now, and the traffic was starting to build. To add to matters the rain had started. We gave the van a call to see if he could catch up with us so we could change into more appropriate kit. Perhaps unsurprisingly he had broken down again, and was waiting at the side of the road for it to come back to life. I took my glasses off; this was going to be a wet finish to the journey.
Paris was about as much fun as we expected, with suburbs quickly turning into busy streets. The sides of the roads were slippy with gravel, and every hundred metres or so we were stopped by traffic lights. Progress slowed, and once again it was hard to keep the group together through the confusion. Long queues of cars trying to get into petrol stations that were out of fuel due to the strikes added another hazard as we regularly had to move out into the faster lanes of traffic to avoid them.
City riding is always testing, especially when you’re tired, but doing so in another country always adds to the peril. Junctions never seem to work in quite the same way, and the accepted social norms of driving differ around the world. This was never more apparent than when exiting a roundabout onto a road that seemed our right of way and having the Paris equivalent of the North Circular appear in our peripheral vision. Four lanes of traffic appeared from the right, and it was every man for himself to try and get out of the way.
The Parisian’s themselves were very accommodating though. On more than one occasion we got a friendly honk of the horn. We even had a moped driver go out of his way to salute and shout ‘Allez!’ over the road.
We pushed onward, through mile after mile of similar junctions and roads. The closer we got to the centre the more time we spent stuck at traffic lights to the stage where it felt like we spent more time unclipped from our pedals than we did moving. The sky was grey, Paris wasn’t showing us her most beautiful side, but the sense of anticipation was amazing. I had been watching my Garmin for a while, and had a good idea of how many KMs marked the end. I marked off every small milestone in my head, 40km to go, 30, 20… I worked it out in every way possible, desperate to keep myself distracted from the ever building tiredness.
And then suddenly as if in a vision, the Eiffel Tower appeared in the distance over a block of buildings. We were nearly there. Well, I say nearly, as quickly as we saw the colossal tower of iron we managed to lose it again! You know you’re struggling when you manage to lose the Eiffel Tower in the middle of Paris! The route had taken us down a road which just wasn’t possible to navigate.
We followed the signs for L’Arc De Triomphe which meant only one thing. COBBLES! My wrists were already jelly from all the time gripping the bars, so this was a slightly unwelcome final test. We headed along the Champs-Elysées rattling around and holding on for dear life. The Arc itself held little respite. Even having ridden around it I have little idea how this junction is meant to work. It’s like a 7 lane Catherine wheel in the middle of the road where you get on, hope for the best and pray that no one decides to ram into you when you decide to exit. It was chaos of the highest order, but somehow we managed to fling ourselves down the right avenue in the general direction of the Seine.
More cobbles awaited us, and these were worse than the first as they were on a downwards slope. My knuckles turned white as I clung on hoping the slippery cobbles weren’t going to be my final memory of this trip.
1530 – The Eiffel Tower
We’d done it! 240 miles and 28 hours after leaving Biggleswade we’d reached our destination!
The sense of elation was, if I’m honest, rather small. At the time I was happy to have arrived, but equally looking forward to getting back to the the hotel. The magnitude of what you’ve achieved doesn’t really hit you in the moment, as the reality of what it took to get there supersedes any idealistic thoughts on the beauty of the place and architecture you’re stood in front of.
What I remember more than anything though is a sense of camaraderie. I can’t claim to know any of these guys incredibly well, but right now there was no group I’d rather have been sharing this moment with. We’d been through lot. Every handshake, tap on the back and beaming smile was worth far more to me than the 19th century iron lattice on the other side of the Seine. We had achieved something incredible together. This was a stunning place, but this trip was as much about the journey as the destination. It was time for photos, and lots of them! We went for artistic angles, holding bikes above our heads, and then made the long trudge up to the Jardins Du Trocadero for the classic ‘people standing in front of the Eiffel Tower’ shot.
We bumped into another group of cyclists who we’d met briefly on the ferry. They had ridden the 190 miles from London. We’d done 240 from Biggleswade. It’s these moments when you start to realise the magnitude of what’s been achieved. And that was it. It seems like a short end to a very long story, but it kind of was. The rain threatened and we had 6 miles or so to get back to the hotel. We jumped our broken bodies onto the bikes and headed out for one last time.
The journey ended as it began, with legs spinning pedals. Such a simple pursuit gives you a real appreciation for time and distance. And for now at least, I was happy that distance was done.